Spam, spam, spam and the pagers of spin! Part 3 of the 5 mistakes Marcomms agencies make

From working as an editor in the UK, to taking charge of a Hong Kong magazine, industry journalist Tony Murray has formed innumerable opinions. Interested to hear a few we invited him to share his thoughts via a regular guest blog. Use the comments form below if you have any feedback or written bile to spit as a result, and please remember; if you don’t like it, he doesn’t work for us…
Many marcoms companies’ new business initiatives are often more self-defeating than a schizophrenic tag team. They shoot themselves in the foot more frequently than the Paralympic All-Comers Myopic Toenail Target squad. If new business is the life blood of such businesses, it is small wonder that so many are pale, uninteresting and in desperate need of life support.
Few choose new business as a career. On the North-West scene, only Duncan Slater, currently at Origin Creative in Cheadle Heath strikes me as a serial new biz guy. With a career that has spanned, just off the top of my head, Poulter, BJL, Cheetham Bell, Attik and the Advertising Agency, Slater
demonstrates both the ubiquity of the new business role and the tendency for burn-out.
The big problem with new business is finding a point of difference. With PR consultancies, this tends to come from the top. More than most marcom sectors, PR clients tend to buy into people. Entranced by the senior staff, clients buy into charismatic or short-skirted MDs and hope for the best. Frequently, they never see these senior people again, except at the client Xmas party. For some reason, this is known as the Christmas Carroll Syndrome.
When it comes to design and digital, clients seem to buy more into the work. Tangible look-nice products, with a hint of retro-fitted strategy and planning, work wonders here. When it comes to advertising, though, this is where there really is a struggle to find a point of difference.
Lacking the award-winning show reels of their London contemporaries, it’s forever arse-scratching time in regional ad agencies as they desperately try to think of something – anything – that differentiates them from the rivals. This results in no end of tortuous positioning statements, with my all-time favourite being: “Everyone’s favourite number two???, an unintentionally scatological catchline once championed by Swindon’s Emery Mclaven and Orr.
Laurie O’Toole, now retired, was the long-time business development director of BDH. With its once untouchable creative reputation and global connections, BDH had had a better story to tell than most regional players, but it still struggled – as it does today under its TBWA Mank guise – with new business.
O’Toole tells the story of a major new business push by BDH, back at the end of the 90s. This involved sending a series of off-the-wall mailers to a number of prospects on a one-a-day basis for a week, with O’Toole calling the now surely fascinated client on the Friday to arrange an appointment. Well that was the plan.
Come the Friday, O’ Toole called one particular target and the conversation from the client end went something like this: “Well, Mr O’Toole, when I got your first mailer on Monday, I was intrigued. The second mailer, on Tuesday, continued to pique my interest. By Wednesday and the third mailer, I was starting to get irritated. When the fourth arrived, on Thursday, I was genuinely annoyed. Had you been here on Friday, when the fifth one arrived, I would have happily rolled it up and stuck it right up your arse…???
The truth is, despite what agencies seem to believe, most new business campaigns do more to alienate clients than to engage them. Some things are worse, though. Being a bad loser for instance. When BDH lost out on a pitch for Spam (the tinned luncheon meat, not the helpful penile resuscitation emails) to Leeds’ Advertising Principles, O’Toole went on record to say he was glad that they hadn’t won it and that it was “easy for agencies to become retirement homes for dying brands???. Naturally, AP took some umbrage at this and shared the quote with Spam central, who decided to bring out the legals against BDH. Thankfully, it was eventually all settled with lots of printed apologies and grovelling.

Mr O’Toole’s colleagues at BDH, deeply amused by Luncheon-meat gate, decided to have a bit of fun with him, however. They mocked up a letter, on Spam-headed paper, saying that the company was no longer going for BDH, but had decided to go for Laurie personally. The ever-fiscally frugal O’Toole, whose monologues on the state of his pension fund were legendary, is believed to have spent most of the rest of the day astride the crapper of BDH’s old Chester Road HQ.
Aside from the inherent dangers of the overly keen new biz campaign and the obvious negatives of being a poor loser, problems can emerge from even the most seemingly harmless – well ish – of promotional activities, especially if they err on the bold side. The problem of being cutting edge is that people tend to get cut. And they don’t like it.
The finest example of this involves not one, not two, but three North West media and marketing institutions. Back around the turn of the millennium, EMAP was still pushing its little-remembered Big City Network, with the drive being co-ordinated through the offices of the one-time Piccadilly radio.
To raise awareness, the radio group turned to Tucker-Clarke Williams, the fore-runner of Love Creative, and Communique, the fore-runner of around 50 per cent of today North West PR companies. Together, the three devised a decisive bit of waggery.
This saw pagers anonymously delivered to many of the regional media buyers and agency heads. The source of these pagers was not revealed and they were only accompanied by a note advising the recipient to keep them close. Naturally, the intrigue factor was huge. Over the next two weeks, all the pagees received a series of personalised messages via their devices. Every one addressed them by name and was heavy on sexual innuendo of an S&M variety. What could go wrong?
Sadly, one of the female recipients had just been caught out having an affair. Her wronged hubby was not of a mind to accept the dominance and submission messages she was receiving on a twice daily basis as a bit of prankery. He somehow tracked the source down to EMAP and threatened to beat the shit out of their marketing people, suspecting one of them had a distinctly salami sinking agenda in mind for his errant Mrs Desperate back-pedalling and unconvincing explanation about a looming “Dominance and Submission??? pay off party did little to salve the situation. The pager programme was brought to a premature conclusion. The Big City network, too, was wound up soon after, though I doubt that was as a direct result. Probably.
The lessons here? Clients don’t want to hear from you anything like as much as you want to hear from them, be gracious in defeat and, whenever planning something off-the-wall-ish, ask yourself: “What is the worst that can happen???? Then be ready for when it does.